The Mystery of Shakespeare’s Death and Funeral
Much like the rest of William Shakespeare’s life, his death and funeral are shrouded in mystery. What we know for certain about the famous English dramatist and poet is that he died at the age of 52 on April 23, 1616. He was buried inside Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwirkshire, and his wife, Anne Hathaway, was buried next to him seven years after his death.
The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown, but the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, John Ward, wrote fifty years later that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” The Stratford Parish Register records Shakespeare’s burial as occurring on April 25, 1616.
It is traditional to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, or St. George’s Day, which is the same day as Shakespeare’s death. According to the Holy Trinity Church baptismal register, Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, so scholars estimate that his birth occurred a few days before. The idea that Shakespeare passed away on the same day he was born is an exciting idea, as though his life were a closed circuit. However, the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth has not been determined.
Shakespeare’s gravestone lies in the chancel beneath the floor of the church. The epitaph, supposedly written by Shakespeare himself, reads:
Shakespeare wrote a will, signed in March of 1616, with the help of his lawyer, Francis Collins of Warwick. His daughter, Susanna, and her husband, Dr. John Hall, received most of the inheritance. Most notably, the only time his wife, Anne Hathaway, was mentioned in the will was for William to leave her his “second best bed.”
There is some debate as to why this was the only mention of her, but some argue that it was an intimate gesture; because the best bed in the house was customarily the guest bed, the next best would have been the bed they shared as husband and wife. In addition, English Common Law entitled Anne Hathaway to one-third of his estate and the use of the matrimonial home for life, which was unnecessary to specify in the will. Shakespeare also left money and other portions to his daughter Judith, his sister Joan, his nephews, his granddaughter, his friends, and the poor.
While we don’t know the specifics of Shakespeare’s funeral, we do have record of Elizabethan England funeral customs. The majority of funerals in Elizabethan England were Christian. The apparel of mourners depended on their status—the rich and nobility could afford to wear all black, while the poor would wear what they possessed. Accessories included sprigs of rosemary, black gloves, and stockings. An elaborate funeral procession involved servants carrying banners and escutcheons. Church bells rang as mourners walked from the coffin to the churchyard.
The person’s body would be washed and wrapped in a winding-sheet by a midwife before placement into the coffin. Embalming was sometimes used by those who could afford it, especially if there was a delay before the body could be buried. The wealthy or nobility could afford finer quality wrappings, such as silk, and could be buried inside the church.
At the graveside, the grave and coffin would be draped in black. Flowers representing innocence were tossed into the graves of children and maidens. Mourners tossed herbs such as rue into the graves of men and married women. There is no evidence of floral decorations or arrangements used, but candles sometimes lit the procession, and a linen cross was placed over the coffin. A neighborhood feast was held after the funeral, the scale of which depended on the wealth of the family. Funerals for the well-off were also a time to give alms to the poor.
Even with some insight into Elizabethan England, missing historical details about Shakespeare’s death and funeral contribute to the mystery and fascination surrounding him. Read more about William Shakespeare’s life on our Everlasting Footprint for Shakespeare. Share your own stories about how Shakespeare’s life changed yours.